Tunisian pundits handed one-year prison sentences

Tunisian journalists chant slogans against the country's president in front of the Tunis court where Borhen Bssaies and Mourad Zeghidi appeared in court on 22 May 2024
Broadcaster Borhen Bssais and political commentator Mourad Zeghidi were arrested in mid-May under Decree 54, a 2022 law that critics have said is being used to stifle political dissent. Pictured here: Tunisian journalists chant slogans against the country's president in front of the Tunis court where Borhen Bssaies and Mourad Zeghidi appeared in court on 22 May 2024 (image: FETHI BELAID/AFP)

Two Tunisian media figures on Wednesday received one-year sentences for "spreading false news" and "defaming" others after making comments the authorities deemed critical, a court spokesman said.

Broadcaster Borhen Bssais and political commentator Mourad Zeghidi were arrested in mid-May under Decree 54, a 2022 law that critics have said is being used to stifle political dissent.

The two men received "six months for using communications networks to produce and spread false news and rumours with the aim to infringe upon the rights of others and public security", the court's spokesman, Mohamed Zitouna, told AFP.

In addition, they were handed another six-month prison sentence for "spreading news that includes false information with the aim of defaming others, tarnishing their reputation, and causing them material and moral harm", Zitouna added.

During their trial earlier in the day, Bssais and Zeghidi invoked freedom of expression and insisted that comments they had made were merely part of their jobs as media figures.

They were facing up to five years in prison under Decree 54, a law signed by President Kais Saied in September 2022 that punishes the use of communications networks to "produce, spread (or) disseminate... false news" with the aim of "harming" and "defaming" others.

"I'm neither an opponent nor a supporter of the president," Zeghidi said during the hearing. "Sometimes I support his choices and sometimes I criticise them. It's part of my job." He was being prosecuted for comments made in February and for expressing support for journalist Mohamed Boughalleb, who is also in detention.

Bssais was facing charges for "attacking President Kais Saied through radio broadcasts and statements between 2019 and 2022," according to his lawyer. "I'm a host, so I must present all opinions regardless of their orientations," Bssais said during the hearing. He said he had been treated as if he was "a dangerous criminal".

Both men's lawyers slammed Decree 54, which critics have said is being used to stifle political dissent.

"When politics enters the courtroom, justice leaves," Zeghidi's lawyer, Kamel Massoud, said, blasting the decree as "unconstitutional".

"An entire people is being prosecuted under Decree 54," added Bssais's lawyer, Khaled Khrichi.

Dozens of journalists and rights defenders on Wednesday protested in front of the courthouse where the two men were being tried. (AFP)